The good it promises, the harm it does (Part 1: Introduction)

The Good It Promises, the Harm It Does is the first edited volume to critically engage with Effective Altruism (EA). It brings together writers from diverse activist and scholarly backgrounds to explore a variety of unique grassroots movements and community organizing efforts. By drawing attention to these responses and to particular cases of human and animal harms, this book represents a powerful call to attend to different voices and projects and to elevate activist traditions that EA lacks the resources to assess and threatens to squelch. The contributors reveal the weakness inherent within the ready-made, top-down solutions that EA offers in response to many global problems-and offers in their place substantial descriptions of more meaningful and just social engagement.

The good it promises, the harm it does: Critical essays on effective altruism, Oxford University Press (eds. Carol J Adams, Alice Crary, Lori Gruen)
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1. Situating the project

There have been increasing calls from within the effective altruist community to incorporate insights from a broad range of methods, perspectives and approaches. For example, Holden Karnofsky, co-CEO of Open Philanthropy, writes:

I think it’s a bad idea to embrace the core ideas of EA without limits or reservations; we as EAs need to constantly inject pluralism and moderation. That’s a deep challenge for a community to have – a constant current that we need to swim against.

And a recent, highly-upvoted discussion on the EA Forum recommends:

I think the single most important thing the EA community could do to become more of a question, rather than an ideology, is to take concrete steps to interact more with, learn from, and collaborate with people outside of EA who seek to do good, without necessarily aiming to bring them into the community.

If these calls are on the right track, then it would be very valuable to have a volume of papers whose authors speak from a range of academic, political, demographic and policy backgrounds that are often underrepresented in effective altruism.

It would be even more valuable if those authors were to write directly about effective altruism, with a leading academic press, making an earnest attempt to engage with current practice in effective altruism in order to shed light on the benefits and dangers of some current strategies for doing the most good.

There is such a volume.

2. The good it promises, the harm it does

Carol J. Adams is an author, feminist and animal rights advocate. Her books include The sexual politics of meat: A feminist-vegetarian critical theory, Animals and women: Feminist theoretical explorations, and The pornography of meat.

Alice Crary is University Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at The New School for Social Research. Her books include Inside ethics: On the demands of moral thought and Beyond moral judgment.

Lori Gruen is William Griffin Professor of Philosophy at Wesleyan University. Her books include Ecofeminism: Feminist intersections with other animals and the earth, Ethics of captivity, and Entangled empathy.

Adams, Crary and Gruen are the editors of a new anthology The good it promises, the harm it does: Critical essays on effective altruism with Oxford University Press. From the publisher:

The Good It Promises, the Harm It Does is the first edited volume to critically engage with Effective Altruism (EA). It brings together writers from diverse activist and scholarly backgrounds to explore a variety of unique grassroots movements and community organizing efforts. By drawing attention to these responses and to particular cases of human and animal harms, this book represents a powerful call to attend to different voices and projects and to elevate activist traditions that EA lacks the resources to assess and threatens to squelch. The contributors reveal the weakness inherent within the ready-made, top-down solutions that EA offers in response to many global problems-and offers in their place substantial descriptions of more meaningful and just social engagement.

I would encourage interested readers to buy the book: it is a great way to support an important project (the book is also remarkably affordable).

In this series, I will review some of the chapters from the book which I think contain important lessons about how effective altruism can go astray in its quest to do good, and how effective altruists might learn to do good better. Inevitably, I will have to skip over a number of insightful chapters, a fault which should not be blamed on the authors of those chapters but simply on the need to keep this series at a manageable length.

I’d like to start today by looking at the foreword of the book by Professor Amia Srinivasan. Srinivasan is the Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at All Souls College, Oxford. Srinivasan’s recent book, The right to sex, took the world by storm and has been widely recognized as a seminal contribution to feminist philosophy and public debates. In addition to her philosophical work, Srinivasan is a prolific public philosopher and the author of a prominent review of Will MacAskill’s first book, Doing Good Better, which many readers of this blog will be familiar with. Srinivasan has long expressed skepticism about some core practices and views in effective altruism, and her brief but poignant foreword combines the same richness and density of insight that readers of Srinivasan have come to expect.

3. Who speaks? Who listens?

Srinivasan begins her discussion with a range of probing questions:

What if Effective Altruism, whatever the intentions of its leaders and followers, systematically harmed those it promised to help, eroding democratic decision-making, creating perverse incentives, and reinforcing the very structures that produce the suffering it purports to target? What if Effective Altruism presupposed an impoverished conception of the good, and of the “reason” it seeks to harness for its promotion? What if effective altruism had the ideological function of buttressing systems of oppression, all the while reassuring its adherents – themselves very often beneficiaries of those systems – that they were morally unimpeachable?

Srinivasan motivates these questions by thinking carefully about who speaks in discussions of effective altruism, and who is listened to in those discussions. Srinivasan notes that effective altruists have often paid scant attention to a range of important perspectives which begin from engagement with marginalization and oppression:

These [above] are some of the questions raised when the story of Effective Altruism’s success is told not by its proponents, but by those engaged in liberation struggles and justice movements that operate outside Effective Altruism’s terms. These struggles, it must be said, long predate Effective Altruism, and it is striking that Effective Altruism has not found anything very worthwhile in them: in the historically deep and ongoing movements for the rights of working-class people, nonhuman animals, people of color, Indigenous people, women, incarcerated people, disabled people, and people living under colonial and authoritarian rule. For most Effective Altruists, these movements are, at best, examples of ineffective attempts to do good; negative examples from which to prescind or correct, not political formations from which to learn, with which to create coalition, or to join.

In this passage, Srinivasan notes that a wide range of perspectives have been largely ignored: perspectives such as feminism, disability and gender studies which have been among the most revolutionary and positive forces for change in contemporary society. Correspondingly, Srinivasan notes that a wide range of people have been systematically ignored, including indigenous people, incarcerated people, disabled people, and people living under colonial and authoritarian rule.

In a passage strikingly similar to recent discussions of race and gender in effective altruism, Srinivasan suggests that the limited range of people represented in effective altruism should be considered a serious problem for the movement: the contributors to the volume, in her words, “raise worries about the overwhelming whiteness, middle-classness, and maleness of the Effective Altruist community that many of its members are likely to think irrelevant to the assessment of Effective Altruism’s value.”

A lack of demographic diversity raises at least two concerns. First, ignoring people is connected to ignoring perspectives: the experiences we have shape the knowledge that we hold and the analytical frameworks which we use to make sense of the world. Selecting for homogenous groups of people tends to reduce the ability of a diverse range of perspectives to improve group decisionmaking.

Second, a lack of demographic diversity contributes to problems of inclusion and belonging within effective altruism. In many recent incidents, such as the Bostrom email and the community’s subsequent reaction, as well as more recent discussions around gender and sexual harassment within effective altruism, a common thread has been the inability of largely white, male readers to understand what is wrong with a range of wholly unacceptable behaviors. It is far too easy for members of a homogenous community to genuinely fail to understand the problem with discussion or defense of racist pseudoscience, or the dangers of revealing the names of vulnerable women whose identities were redacted in a magazine article about sexual abuse. This is another example of the connection between ignoring people and ignoring perspectives, since the wrongness of those behaviors is immediately visible to many members of more inclusive communities.

With the publication of this volume, voices from a range of perspectives and backgrounds are speaking directly to effective altruists. The question is whether effective altruists will listen. Srinivasan expresses guarded skepticism on this point:

There is every possibility … that Effective Altruists will ignore what these voices have to say — or fail to take the time to understand what their significance might be. That would be a deep shame, and what’s more, a betrayal of what I believe is a real commitment on the part of many Effective Altruists to bring about a better world.

Like Srinivasan, I think it is very important that Effective Altruists listen to the voices raised in this volume, and that listening carefully will help Effective Altruists to bring about a better world.

4. The institutional critique

In a thought-provoking passage, Srinivasan links effective altruists’ neglect of the perspectives of the oppressed to a fundamental conservatism within the movement:

This [neglect] … reveals Effective Altruism’s fundamental conservatism. The historically most significant social movements … have offered complex analyses of the interrelations between different structures of oppression: between, say, racial domination and capitalist exploitation; the plight of poor women of the Global South and the climate crisis; or neoliberalism, mass incarceration, and the assault on the dignity of people with disabilities. These social movements have also, at their best, shown us that another, radically different world might be possible – a world not just with less harm and suffering, but with substantially more freedom, democracy, and equality in all its guises – even as they articulate concrete programs for reform. These movements have pushed us to think about a world beyond, for example, capitalism, the gender binary, the nuclear family, prisons, and the nation-state. Effective altruism … calls us back from these exercises of radical political imagination. In so doing, Effective Altruism promises us a better world while implicitly encouraging us to accept the world more or less as it is.

This critique has been raised before, under the heading of the institutional critique of effective altruism. The institutional critique is a loose collection of criticisms raised by critics who think that effective altruism focuses too much on how individual actors, be they persons or institutions, can affect the world, and not enough on the background systems and institutions in which those actors operate. As Srinivasan notes, effective altruists are often highly reluctant to tackle the broader projects of systemic reform that movements such as socialism and feminism propose.

There is, as Srinivasan notes, a standard response to the institutional critique: read the commitments of effective altruism flexibly and minimally enough that they can capture nearly any case for systemic reform worth hearing. This allows effective altruists to claim that the institutional critique is not really a criticism of effective altruism, but instead just one more argumentative move within the effective altruist tradition:

Whenever criticisms such as these are put forward, Effective Altruists rush to reply that they only target Effective Altruism as it is currently implemented or practiced, not Effective Altruism “as such” or “in principle.” Indeed, Effective Altruists typically go on, since Effective Altruism is simply the idea that we should undertake to do good in the most effective ways possible, it might well turn out that Effective Altruism recommends that we should, say, engage in union organizing or join the Movement for Black Lives.

For example, Brian Berkey makes this response in his discussion of Amia Srinivasan and Lisa Herzog’s articulations of the institutional critique:

Neither Herzog’s nor Srinivasan’s arguments provide us with reasons to think that effective altruists cannot in principle endorse individuals devoting resources and/or time to efforts to promote institutional reform … It might turn out, for example, that the best available evidence suggests that at least some people can maximize the expected value … of their career choices by seeking political office and attempting to enact important policy change. Or it might be that the expected value of one’s devoting time to attempting to persuade others to join an activist cause promoting important institutional reforms is high enough that it is among the most effective ways that one might improve the world. In principle, we could produce at least a rough estimate of the expected value of an effort like this … This is, in fact, precisely the sort of investigation that effective altruists think ought to be done.

Brian Berkey, “The institutional critique of effective altruism

There are, as Srinivasan notes, some limitations to this reply. But the most obvious, which to my knowledge has not been raised in the previous academic literature, is that the target of critique is not a set of broad philosophical commitments, but a flesh-and-blood movement complete with a range of practices, a growing portfolio of institutions, and a track record of action.

Political critique does not, and should not, merely address what social and political movements say about themselves. Political critique does, and should, also think about what social and political movements do: what effects they systematically bring about in the world, which structures they tend to reinforce, and which people they empower and which they silence. When movements fail to “do” what they “say,” it is not always just a matter of failed “implementation,” easily correctable through a doubling-down on the movement’s core principles. Sometimes, contradictions between what a movement “says” and “does” reveal something deep about how the movement practically works – and why it is successful. In turn, such revelations can tell us something about the limits of what such a movement can plausibly achieve.

In a shrewd nod to recent academic discussions of non-ideal political philosophy, Srinivasan notes that effective altruists’ background in analytic philosophy may be partly to blame, insofar as the analytic tradition has not always historically emphasized the robust kind of non-ideal theorizing needed to understand the gap between the principles and practice of movements such as effective altruism:

It is perhaps unsurprising that Effective Altruists do not recognize the force, or indeed form, of such arguments: do not recognize, that is, what it might even mean to think of Effective Altruism not just as a moral philosophy, but as a piece of ideology. Analytic philosophers as a whole, of whatever moral or political persuasion, tend to evaluate social and political movements according to what they say about themselves, as opposed to what they do in the world … As most students of political history, or practitioners of politics, will tell you, this is a politically disastrous way of thinking about political movements. Ideas have a life beyond what they say, which is partly why ideas matter so much.

Effective altruists may well be right that they have the intellectual resources, in principle, to be sympathetic to many of the perspectives contained in this book and many of the conclusions drawn from those perspectives. Indeed, my own theorizing begins from a largely similar theoretical perspective to that of many effective altruists, but seeks to show how effective altruists might use those perspectives to motivate radically different conclusions.

This suggests a novel, fascinating, and to my mind probably correct way to articulate the institutional critique. In principle, effective altruists may be able to say many things. In practice, they have said and done some things that they really should not have said or done. In particular, they have often neglected calls for systemic reform and the perspectives in which those calls are rooted. However, because effective altruists have the resources to make reasonably good sense of many of these complaints, there is every reason to think that effective altruists can use the resources in this book to become more sympathetic to calls for systemic change.

That is a bit more conciliatory than Srinivasan’s own view. But I really do want to emphasize, as Srinivasan and many others have emphasized, the possibility to use this book as an opportunity for positive change within the effective altruism movement.

5. Conclusion

Srinivasan’s foreword, like many other contributions to this volume, offers a rich and under-represented perspective on the challenges raised by effective altruism. In a few short pages, Srinivasan’s discussion revolutionizes our understanding of the institutional critique of effective altruism and also sheds light on the way that voices are heard or ignored within effective altruism.

I have to say that I am impressed by this contribution and by many of the other contributions to the volume that I have read so far. In the coming months, I will review more chapters. In the meantime, let me know what you think of the book and of Srinivasan’s discussion. What are the most important lessons that effective altruists might look to learn from this book? Which chapters seem the most interesting? And what else might we learn from Srinivasan’s discussion?

Comments

16 responses to “The good it promises, the harm it does (Part 1: Introduction)”

  1. Erich Avatar

    One thing I’m a bit confused about has to do with whether systemic criticisms of EA hold (a) that EA buttresses and supports oppressive capitalism/speciecism etc., (b) that EA causes other harms (as “side-effects”) that socialists and animal rights advocates etc. would not have caused, or (c) that EA ignores or doesn’t do enough to stop oppressive capitalism/speciecism etc. I kind of assume it has to be (a) or (b), since if it’s (c), there doesn’t seem to be much of a problem (not everyone has to work on tackling every problem; it’s fine for different ppl to focus on different ways of effecting positive change).

    To the extent that it’s (a), I’m confused about is how exactly EA boosts oppressive capitalism/speciecism. Is it that EA-style charity is good PR for billionaires/capitalism, for example, helping the capitalist system remain in place? Is it that it pacifies the working classes (this doesn’t apply to animals, perhaps), reducing their antipathy towards capitalism? Those effects don’t really seem that large to me.

    To the extent that it’s (b), I’d be curious to see more object-level arguments about what the harms are. (FTX is one obvious example, but I assume people who use this argument have more than that in mind.)

    My feeling so far is that a lot of critics, at least radical critics, and at least prior to 2022, have mostly (a) in mind, but this may be mistaken.

    1. David Thorstad Avatar

      Thanks Erich! As always, it’s good to hear from you.

      You’re absolutely right that it’s important to distinguish (a)-(c), and that these are not always distinguished. I think that (a)-(c) are all live worries for many critics. Let me say a bit more about this. But first, three quick remarks.

      (1) I’m going to focus on capitalism and not on speciesism here, for the sake of brevity.

      (2) The most honest answer to questions about how EA is entangled with capitalism is “it’s very, very complicated”. This is a topic which thousands of scholars and activists, particularly Marxists, have spent their lives trying to understand. I can give examples to motivate the problem, but I can’t do in a few short paragraphs what, say, a Marxist critic would really like me to do: help you to understand how capitalism operates, why that might be bad, and what we might do about it.

      (3) One of the recurring complaints in this volume, voiced here by Srinivasan, is that EAs haven’t engaged much with traditions they should be engaging with. As I mentioned, traditions such as Marxism have a lot to say about capitalism. EAs don’t read and talk about Marxist theory very much. Then EAs find themselves baffled by how they could be supporting capitalism, or what would be wrong with capitalism. Here one is tempted to ask in response whether they have read any Marxists.

      Okay, back to the main thread. On (a), again the best I can do is to give a few examples here. One example in the spirit of this book is in Simone de Lima’s chapter, which I will review in Part 2. De Lima focuses on animal advocacy in Brazil. She devotes a number of pages to thinking about the ways in which large international organizations, often EA-funded, have pushed major international conglomerates to sign pledges to increase animal welfare standards, then touted these pledges as highly cost-effective victories for animal rights.

      De Lima makes many points about such pledges, but one recurring theme has to do with why companies make them. Many of the companies signing these pledges have appalling human rights records, animal rights records, and rap sheets of corruption, bribery, deforestation and other forms of bad-dealing. One of the effects of these pledges is to allow those companies to present themselves as good actors, thereby sustaining a business model that is largely exploitative, corrupt or harmful. This would be an example of how a seemingly cost-effective action (getting major meat companies to sign animal welfare pledges) could figure into a larger capitalist system which allows corporations to act badly on an international stage, using charity as a form of reputation management to sustain their current operations largely intact.

      If you want a more “traditional EA” example of (a), practices such as earning to give and organizations such as Founders’ Pledge would probably be good examples of EA providing a direct boost to capitalism. (And at the risk of hitting below the belt, let’s not forget about FTX).

      On (b), I think the best thing I can say is that this book is stuffed full of rich, detailed, theoretically-informed and empirically contextualized examples demonstrating object-level harms. I’m very happy about that, because the existing literature hasn’t had many such examples. If you take a look at some of the chapters in this book, or follow my reviews, I’ll try to bring out a number of examples. (We discussed one concrete example in thinking about corporate pledges in Brazil, but this is just one of many examples).

      On (c), I think the response that you make is unavailable to effective altruists. Effective altruists are cause-neutral: they want to do as much good as they can, regardless of cause area. For this reason, effective altruists cannot say: well, perhaps combatting the excesses of capitalism is better than what we’re doing right now, but that’s for someone else to do. (Actually, there *is* one way in which they could try to make this point. Namely, they could stress that EAs would currently be inept at, and unwelcome in efforts to make this particular sort of change. But I don’t think that EAs should want to emphasize that line of response).

      Initially, during the days of the `institutional critique’ of longtermism, EAs had a decent response to critics of capitalism. They said: we only fund interventions that are backed by very high standards of evidence (for example, randomized controlled trials), but it’s hard to get evidence of that standard in cause areas such as anti-capitalist activism. Fair enough. But now EAs have moved to longtermism, and in the process utterly jettisoned their original evidential standards. Now EAs are willing to consider much more speculative and empirically ungrounded forms of argument than anything a Marxist ever said – Marxism is, whatever else might be said about it, grounded in extensive observation of human experience, and suggests reforms that might be tractable and measurable on a scale of decades or perhaps a few centuries. (Activists sometimes promote much more modest actions that can be done in as little as a few days).

      So now EAs need a new response to critics of capitalism. EAs can’t say that it’s someone else’s problem, because that would be an abandonment of cause-neutrality. And EAs can’t say that the evidence is too speculative, because they now consider much more speculative forms of evidence in thinking about longtermism. So EAs really might have good reason to engage in detail with some of the things that critics of capitalism say and do.

      1. Erich Avatar

        Thanks, some scattershot thoughts …

        On engaging more with non-EA thought … No doubt EAs have things to learn from other fields. But also: people’s time and attention are scarce resources, and it’s far from clear to me that (say) Marxist thought is among the most worthwhile to study. For all I know, EAs could have more to learn from libertarian/Austrian school thought (which is probably equally distant to the median EA politically). But if I were to bet, I’d guess neither is among the most useful in helping EAs do good. (I’d guess stuff in the social and/or natural sciences would be better, and perhaps history.) Maybe that’s an important crux here?

        (I used to be pretty sympathetic to socialism, by the way, and may even have called myself a socialist at one point, though as you can probably tell I’m not very sympathetic to it anymore. Still, for what it’s worth, a good 10% or so of the non-fiction books I own are written by anarchists, socialists or communists.)

        But also, on the other hand, I get it. I guess I also think socialists are misguided and, while they’ve got good intentions, occasionally cause harm, and generally that they’d do better if they adopted a perspective closer to mine. Because of course I would! But for some reason, while I’m happy to criticize socialists’ ideas or actions, I don’t feel a need to convince them to read EA stuff (even though anti-capitalism seems far more hegemonic than EA culturally) — I’m not sure why.

        On corporate welfare campaigns in particular, I’m not that knowledgeable about animal advocacy, let alone in Brazil in particular, but it seems to me that EAs _have_ considered humane washing, and pretty much decided that the negatives are outweighed by the positives (that is, direct welfare benefits plus maybe momentum effects). See e.g. https://www.sentienceinstitute.org/foundational-questions-summaries#momentum-vs.-complacency-from-welfare-reforms), https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/kHdKWmTcS3FfcYAZj/eaa-is-relatively-overinvesting-in-corporate-welfare-reforms (with comments), https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/Cbm2hu4RFfCqSHKcr/2020-top-charity-ideas-charity-entrepreneurship#_Feed_fortification … Plus, ACE explicitly considers anti-speciesism and veganism/vegetarianism outcomes (https://animalcharityevaluators.org/research/methodology/menu-of-outcomes/ … Anyway, whether or not welfare campaigns makes abolitionism more or less likely seems like an empirical argument, and I’m not sure studying Marxism is really that helpful in adjudicating it. (Also, my impression is that the actual humane washing that consumers see, in particular through packaging, is only weakly related to the actual conditions in the factory farms, but I could be wrong about that.)

        Disclaimer: I haven’t read De Lima’s chapter; so far I only read the Christian critique chapter, which [I didn’t find that enlightening](https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/YFGkyDjKvsr9tHzkS/book-post-the-good-it-promises-the-harm-it-does-critical?commentId=JbCydLnFKFadLJD3q).

        On EAs not being justified in dismissing anti-capitalist work according to some sort of division of labour thing, yeah, true, I think that’s right. On second thought, I reckon most EAs (being usually on the moderate left or thereabouts) have actually considered socialism but rejected it as an inferior option than welfare capitalism (which is also bad in many respects), and that, for various reasons, in my opinion, that’s ultimately the correct decision.

      2. Wyman Kwok Avatar

        Hi David, you mentioned that “[Simone de Lima] devotes a number of pages to thinking about the ways in which large international organizations, often EA-funded, have pushed major international conglomerates to sign pledges to increase animal welfare standards, then touted these pledges as highly cost-effective victories for animal rights.” But has she discussed about whether those EA-funded organisations would usually follow-up with those pledges to see if they would be fulfilled? Thanks.

        1. David Thorstad Avatar

          Thanks Wyman! I’m not actually sure if de Lima mentions specific evidence of follow-up, or lack of follow-up, on behalf of EA orgs in Brazil in recent years. I suspect that might be a bit more specific than the scope of de Lima’s article, although I will check. If there is anything specific on this topic in de Lima’s treatment, I’ll either build it into my post and/or comment back here.

          I agree with the implied thrust of your comment: follow-up is a very good thing. It’s always good to see organizations follow up to check that commitments have been fulfilled, and to use this follow up as a way to inform later action.

          1. Henric Karlsson Avatar
            Henric Karlsson

            Hi, very interesting posts here. I am interested in your thoughts about something that I find baffeling about longtermism and its relationship to capitalism: The connection between capitalism – technology – and existential risk. Considering that technological development has a close connection to capitalism, and that all human made existential risks identified by longtermism has its origins in technological developmemt during capitalism, why has the existential risk posed by capitalism, as the driver of technological development par exellance, and thus driver of existential risk, been so poorly adressed in longtermist theory? At least that is my impression.

            The point I am making is not that technology in it self must pose existential risks and that you therefore must be some kind of luddite, but rather that capitalism and its inner workings are driving technological development in a specific way, that, evidently, produces existential risks.

            Accepting this, longtermism, should lead to adopting an anti-capitalist stance. Why does it not? Why is the connection between capitalism and technological development so poorly adessed in longtermism? Any thoughts?

  2. Jonathan Paulson Avatar
    Jonathan Paulson

    Here’s my “narrowing” reply to the institutional critique: EA is not the only movement for trying to do good in the world, and it makes sense – for diversification reasons – for EA to take a somewhat different approach than others. EA attracts a somewhat different demographic with a different approach than e.g. socialists, and IMO that’s good – it means more (different types of) people are trying to improve the world. These critiques seem to want to push EA in a more left-wing direction, but AFAIK there are already many orgs for leftwing people trying to e.g. overthrow capitalism, and a more useful niche for EA to occupy is to tell people with different instincts how they can make the world a better place.

    Or at least that’s my personal story: I found EA and especially GiveWell’s philosophy very appealing, and as a result I’ve donated a lot that I might not have otherwise. If EA philosophy was oriented around more radical left-wing ideas, I would have found it offputting rather than engaging.

    I say this is a “narrowing” reply because it places EA within a whole ecosystem of people trying to good, rather than saying that everyone trying to do good should be an EA.

    1. David Thorstad Avatar

      Thanks Jonathan!

      Maybe this is the right way for effective altruists to go. You’ll see that Eric stresses a similar line of response in his original comment (see his point c).

      One potential feature of this approach (which I think is the reason why you called it “narrowing” reply) is that it could come into conflict with effective altruists’ commitment to cause-neutrality. On the approach you suggest, the claim wouldn’t be that effective altruists work to pursue the most cost-effective ways of doing good, regardless of area, but rather that they limit themselves to a specific subset of causes, and perhaps also a specific subset of methods of analysis, potential staffing choices, and the like.

      That’s okay. Sometimes I think it might be a good thing if effective altruists were to view themselves as tackling a more focused set of problems, and using a more focused set of methods. This would mean that effective altruists would need to be careful to limit their rhetoric: they couldn’t, for example, say without more argument that people who work on other causes or use other methods of cause prioritization are doing good less effectively. And they wouldn’t be able to describe the movement in sweeping terms, as something like the attempt to use reason and evidence to do the most good possible, since for example many Marxists might see themselves as using reason and evidence and could in principle see their aim as doing the most good possible.

      What do you think?

      1. Jonathan Paulson Avatar
        Jonathan Paulson

        I don’t think it’s quite right to say this is abandoning cause-neutrality. I’d say it’s abandoning “worldview neutrality”; instead of abstractly trying to do the most good, effective altruism is coming at that question with a particular set of assumptions. Something like “incrementalist consequentialism” (although “incrementalist” isn’t really right; tbh I’m not sure how to describe the divide I see between EA and it’s critics from the left, much less other worldviews).

        I agree this would reduce how sweeping EA claims are somewhat. It’s not very clear to me how to think or talk about these kinds of worldview differences. Even within EA this is an unsolved problem IMO (consider the divide between global health, animals, and longtermist wings of EA).

  3. Diego Oliveira Avatar
    Diego Oliveira

    Thank you very much for your writings!

    I’d like to better understand the following paragraph:
    “Correspondingly, Srinivasan notes that a wide range of people have been systematically ignored, including indigenous people, incarcerated people, disabled people, and people living under colonial and authoritarian rule”

    I understand there are at least three possible ways of parsing the word “ignored”.

    [1 – Silenced] Those people have tried to suggest actions to EA (be it in person or in written form), but they were directly silenced by the EA community (e.g, were not allowed to speak up in public conferences, or had their published comments on the forum deleted).

    [2 – Ignored] Those people have tried to suggest actions to EA (be it in person or in written form), and their opinion hasn’t been engaged with in any form. That is, they have been ignored in the more “active” sense of the word.

    [3 – Not taken into account] Those people haven’t exactly tried to suggest actions to EA (be it in person or in written form), but neither has Effective Altruism actively asked for their opinion on the matter of how to do the most good. That is, they have been ignored in the more “passive” sense of the word.

    The use of the word “systematically” in the paragraph implies that, whatever interpretation of “ignore” we take, it has happened frequently and/or specifically to those groups.

    In case the correct interpretation is 1 or 2, does Srinivasan present some evidence of this? Otherwise, how does she know?

    In case the correct interpretation is 3, couldn’t she or those people manifest more precisely what it is that they know that should not be ignored by those who want to do the most good? I get the feeling that, unless they present concrete points that they would like to raise to the community with respect to the central question of how to do the most good, I don’t see much of a problem in this sense of ignoring, since the forum is open for anyone to express themselves, and, after all, EA is not a global survey on what people think is the most good, but it’s rather a cooperative project.

    1. David Thorstad Avatar

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Diego, and for the helpful three-part distinction! I think there are two questions here: first, what sense of “ignored” does Srinivasan have in mind, and second, why is that kind of ignoring wrong?

      **What kind of ignoring is at issue**

      I can’t speak for Srinivasan, but I suspect that at times she and many other authors in this volume mean all of (1)-(3).

      A good example of (3) would be to trace the themes from most of the essays in this book and ask how often they are engaged with by EAs. I think that most EAs would agree with the authors of those essays that these themes are often not considered. You’ll see some of this in Jonathan Paulson’s comments on this post. For example, Paulson writes: “I don’t think it’s quite right to say this is abandoning cause-neutrality. I’d say it’s abandoning “worldview neutrality”; instead of abstractly trying to do the most good, effective altruism is coming at that question with a particular set of assumptions.”. Paulson also takes this to be an important feature of effective altruism and its response to the institutional critique: “Here’s my “narrowing” reply to the institutional critique: EA is not the only movement for trying to do good in the world, and it makes sense – for diversification reasons – for EA to take a somewhat different approach than others. EA attracts a somewhat different demographic with a different approach than e.g. socialists, and IMO that’s good – it means more (different types of) people are trying to improve the world. These critiques seem to want to push EA in a more left-wing direction, but AFAIK there are already many orgs for leftwing people trying to e.g. overthrow capitalism, and a more useful niche for EA to occupy is to tell people with different instincts how they can make the world a better place.”

      A good example of (2) would be many effective altruists’ response to this volume. Just this week, Richard Chappell posted a highly-upvoted review of the volume to the EA Forum (https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/ZKYpu4WAiwTXDSrX8/review-of-the-good-it-promises-the-harm-it-does). Chappell writes: “I didn’t find much of value in the book. The quality of argumentation is worse than on most blogs I read” and writes in response to me “I’ve appreciated your blog commentary on these issues, and would recommend that people read that over the book itself!” That’s a straightforward request not to engage with the book.

      A good example of (1) might be Simone de Lima’s discussion (reviewed in Part 2) of who speaks at events hosted by vegan NGOs. De Lima writes: “To advance the[ir] supposedly effective interventions, a colonialist tactic could not be absent: that of convincing the public that this is the superior, tried and tested, science-based approach to animal advocacy. The result is that international lecturers engage in talk tours and workshops “teaching” “efficacy and pragmatism” … They claim for themselves, and for themselves only, the word strategy, coining “strategic veganism,” a rhetorical move to portray those who invest in community and alliance-building, politicized and contextualized activism, and the fight for food sovereignty and autonomy as devoid of strategy.”

      **Why is ignoring wrong**

      I think that the least controversial reason why it is wrong to ignore people in any of these senses is that they often have important things to say and that by ignoring them effective altruists will miss out on insights that could inform their views and actions.

      Also fairly uncontroversially, most social scientists think that group deliberation does well in heterogenous groups (different types of people, holding different opinions, drawing on different information and deliberating together) and fails most spectacularly in homogenous groups. Many would classify effective altruism as a fairly homogenous group and would think that effective altruism shows many warning signs of failures of deliberation in homogenous groups. I hope to write about this in my series on epistemics, though I’ve said a bit here (https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/NZz3Das7jFdCBN9zH/announcing-the-open-philanthropy-ai-worldviews-contest?commentId=WDm8zRkmDpY8YCz2P). The replies to the linked comment might be illustrative.

      Another reason why it is important to heed diverse voices relates to the concept of epistemic injustice, discussed by Miranda Fricker in her book by the same name. Fricker holds that we commit epistemic injustice when we prejudicially fail to heed someone’s testimony because of certain types of beliefs we hold about them. Fricker, like many scholars, thinks that epistemic injustice is especially common against women and members of ethnic minority groups, and perhaps even that the role of these and other stereotypes should be built into the notion of epistemic injustice. Fricker and others might well think that effective altruists commit epistemic injustice by paying insufficient attention to the authors in this volume.

  4. Henric Karlsson Avatar
    Henric Karlsson

    Hi, very interesting posts here. I am interested in your thoughts about something that I find baffeling about longtermism and its relationship to capitalism: The connection between capitalism – technology – and existential risk. Considering that technological development has a close connection to capitalism, and that all human made existential risks identified by longtermism has its origins in technological developmemt during capitalism, why has the existential risk posed by capitalism, as the driver of technological development par exellance, and thus driver of existential risk, been so poorly adressed in longtermist theory? At least that is my impression.

    The point I am making is not that technology in it self must pose existential risks and that you therefore must be some kind of luddite, but rather that capitalism and its inner workings are driving technological development in a specific way, that, evidently, produces existential risks.

    Accepting this, longtermism, should lead to adopting an anti-capitalist stance. Why does it not? Why is the connection between capitalism and technological development so poorly adessed? Any thoughts?

    1. David Thorstad Avatar

      Thanks Henric!

      I very much agree that the relationship between longtermism and capitalism is important and deserves further scrutiny. This has been a consistent theme of Srinivasan’s work: for example, in her 2015 review of MacAskill’s first book, Srinivasan wrote: “MacAskill is evidently comfortable with ways of talking that are familiar from the exponents of global capitalism: the will to quantify, the essential comparability of all goods and all evils, the obsession with productivity and efficiency, the conviction that there is a happy convergence between self-interest and morality, the seeming confidence that there is no crisis whose solution is beyond the ingenuity of man.” Srinivasan went on to note, as you do, “Yet there is no principled reason why effective altruists should endorse the worldview of the benevolent capitalist,” and wondered why there hasn’t been a larger break.

      In this volume, several pieces bear on the relationship between effective altruism and capitalism (connections to longtermism are not stressed as heavily, though they might be inferred). Simone de Lima’s essay, which I review in Part 2 of this series, touches somewhat on capitalism: see i.e. her remarks on large meat companies in Brazil. Alice Crary’s piece, “Against `effective altruism’” also discusses the relationship between effective altruism and some excesses of capitalism. For example, Crary writes: “Effective altruists couch their moral assessments quantitatively in terms of doing the most good, trafficking in tropes of economic efficiency that align them with the institutions of neoliberal capitalism.” Crary also writes something I mean to use as an opening quotation if I ever discuss socialist critiques of EA: “Effective altruists present their philanthropic program as the expression of an uncontextualised moral theory, in a manner that reflects no awareness of the significance of their situatedness within capitalist forms of life. How it happens that EA has at its disposal an audience of people with excess wealth is not a question that they take up.” I haven’t reviewed Crary’s piece yet (I hope to), but in the meantime, a nearly identical version is available for free online here: https://www.radicalphilosophy.com/article/against-effective-altruism.

      Outside of this volume, Nikhil Venkatesh at the London School of Economics has thought a great deal about the relationship between socialism and effective altruism, including longtermism. His “A socialist guide to effective altruism” is worth a read: https://www.whattodoaboutnow.com/post/a-socialist-guide-to-effective-altruism. The Jacobin, a well-known socialist periodical, has published some pieces tentatively supportive of effective altruism, but also a large number of more critical pieces. I think that Matthew Snow’s “Against charity” reflects the traditional socialist case for skepticism well in broad brushstrokes: https://jacobin.com/2015/08/peter-singer-charity-effective-altruism/. The socialist Linsey McGoey wrote a more specific piece recently taking a rather sharp tone with effective altruists: https://jacobin.com/2023/01/effective-altruism-longtermism-nick-bostrom-racism.

      I appreciate you bringing this up. You helped me to realize that I haven’t said much about capitalism on this blog. I think that’s a shame, and I’ll try to fix that.

  5. Henric Karlsson Avatar
    Henric Karlsson

    Thanks very much for this reply! I will certainly read all of these texts on longtermism, EA and capitalism that you recommend.

    I guess what I am really trying to find out, is if this particular, I suppose you can call it Marxist critique, of longtermism, centering on capitalism beeing an engine of existential risk through the specific way it promotes technological development (i.e that it is the competition in the market, and often short sighted profit goals that drives technological development) has,

    1, been articulated?
    And if so:
    2, provoked a response from longtermists?

    Do you know?

    Thanks in advance!

    1. David Thorstad Avatar

      Thanks! I’m not sure about this specific critique. I think it’s worth making. I suspect it may well have been made and discussed, but I’m not sure where. Nikhil will know if you email him.

  6. Henric Karlsson Avatar
    Henric Karlsson

    Ok, I will, thanks!

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